So, I read a lot of fanfiction. I’ve been reading it since the seventh grade. One time in high school I tried to read it while driving. Needless to say, I have a lot of experience (and therefore a lot of fic recs) under my belt.
Some time ago, I was venting on Tumblr about what is usually considered the epitome of Sherlock angst fic, a oneshot called “Alone on the Water” by Mad_Lori. Sherlock gets cancer, his mind deteriorates, John’s there when he dies. It is widely known as the Sherlock fic with capital-A Angst and dropped at the foot of every Sherlock fanfic newbie. The post I made was basically, i mean tbh i can name at least 10 sherlock fics that are SO much sadder.
Of course, I then got an ask that told me to put my money where my mouth was and rec those ten fics off the top of my head. I did it, and I did it in order.
Most of them are Sherlock-centric, and no matter how sad they are, I have a general rule against including sick!fics (specifically leading to death). I kind of feel like that’s cheating on the angst level. (Oh, and these are are all Series 3 and earlier, because we’re pretending like Series 4 didn’t exist. Whoops.)
But anyway, here are ten Sherlock fics guaranteed to break your heart more than AOTW ever will. Some of them have happy endings; some do not. Do yourself a favor and don’t read them all at once, okay?
(Warning: Spoilers abound.)
- if nobody speaks of remarkable things by darcylindbergh
Maybe that was why: you only get the one miracle.
This one is actually John-centric and so, so lovely. He and Mary lose the baby, and John counts the number of times he visits Sherlock’s grave even after Sherlock returned. Another sad thing about this fic is that Sherlock’s pining is palpable, and even though we see it from John’s perspective, he doesn’t. (Disclaimer: After Mary came into the picture I stopped sympathizing with John as much as I do with Sherlock, which is why this is so far down the list. But don’t get me wrong, it’s still incredible.)
- Ease Your Way into Occupied Spaces by joolabee
One thing’s certain: this wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen.
It’s mainly the title of this fic that makes me bang my hands on the table shouting ANGST!!! ANGST!!! ANGST!!! If you think about it for a while, it makes perfect sense: This is a semi-slow burn infidelity fic, so it’s about Sherlock slipping into the spot in John’s life that Mary currently fills. This author’s writing is gorgeous, and it’s angsty in more ways than characterization and plot, if that makes sense. The sadness in this fic is quiet, which makes it loud.
- the knife I turn inside myself by polyommatusblues
There are a million parallel universes out there in which Sherlock and John are happy—universes in which Sherlock never jumped, John never married, and things never went to hell. Sherlock knows that this is not one of universes. It could have been, he imagines, but it’s not. They make due.
A lot of the fics on this list are infidelity fics, and I don’t know if that’s because post-s3 fics are what I mainly read or if that’s just what I consider the most angsty. But whatever. This fic is basically just Sherlock pining like a damn forest and John more or less unknowingly taking advantage of that. It’s littered with “what if” vignettes that show different lives they could have had, which makes their actual life together even more heartbreaking.
- Second Waltz by Atiki
“Imagining is all we can do now. Just imagine what would’ve happened, if either of us had mustered the courage before it was too late. Imagine how much we would have loved each other.”
This is another John-centric fic and kind of pushes my sick!fic rule: they do everything the same and then they retire. They realize they screwed everything up. They try again. A (very big) part of me wants to put this fic closer to the top of the list, because it’s incredibly beautiful. But’s it is short (only 6k words) and ends too happily. The dialogue and Sherlock and John’s movements are so delicate, the polar opposite of usual post-marriage “oops I’m just now telling you” fics. The hurt is light throughout, but it lingers.
- Where I Cannot Find You by withoutawish
When Hamish is diagnosed with cancer, his parents have two entirely separate ways of coping.
Okay, this is another slight exception to the sick!fic rule, but only because it works so well. Neither Sherlock nor John have any ideas about how to cope with Hamish’s illness, so the situation thrusts them into their respective modes of operation. The fic is based on Sherlock and John as a unit, yes, but mainly as individuals dealing with this. This makes the illness (and Hamish—sorry, buddy) a vehicle for angst instead of the angst itself. (Also: Oh my goodness at the title, right? Just wait till you read the line in context.)
- Software Malfunction by tiger_in_the_flightdeck
“You think I can’t love you? Just because you’re made with metal, and detailed programming?”
So in this one, Sherlock is a sexbot (or “specially commissioned Companion android”) who befriends John while he’s working as a medical aid on a ship. I know this sounds weird—but bear with me here because it is not only one of the saddest fics I’ve ever read (obviously, if it’s on this list) but it is also one of the most unique. The payoff at the end is worth any confusion or discomfort that comes from the idea of it, I promise. (Also the podfic is so, so good! I don’t usually like podfics but I highly recommend listening to that instead of reading it, because the technological noises really make the fic come to life.)
- Lacuna by coloredink
God, it must have been terrible, to think that he would never have this again.
Ah yes, amnesia!fic. You probably figured there would be at least one on the list. In this one, John remembers bits and pieces, but only enough to believe what Sherlock tells him. Sherlock knows this, and he takes advantage of it. What really ties the knot on this fic’s angst level is Sherlock’s characterization. He’s savage, desperate, and 100% believable. It’s exactly the kind of dark Sherlock that could exist within the actual BBC canon. He’s so in love that it nearly kills him, and he does something absolutely unforgivable. But what’s obvious is that he can’t help himself; he has an opportunity and he takes it. He’s trying his best, but he just wants, way too much.
- Apokalypsis by songlin
There were things I never told you because I thought we had time. There is no time left in the world anymore.
Usually I like to reread angsty fics because I have a weird draw to emotional masochism, but this is one fic I touched a second time and probably never will again. So many apocalypse stories are floating out there, but this one is special because it doesn’t have a lot of action. It’s about survival, and Sherlock and John survive painfully for as long as they can. It’s not angsty in the same way as the second fic on this list is angsty (just wait), but it is very emotionally draining. It’s so good, so very good. But make sure you’re prepared for it. The writing is lovely and the setup is interesting. Overall, it’s a damn good fic and a damn good weapon of mass destruction, if that mass destruction is happening exclusively in your soul.
- Burn Down by augustbird
When love isn’t enough.
Just read the description here and tell me you don’t want to die of sadness. This one is post-Reichenbach (which used to be my drug of choice), and the author spares nothing in her characterization of Sherlock. This a Sherlock very similar to the one in “Lacuna,” and the thing is… not much really happens. It’s just Sherlock and John trying to work it out in the aftermath of Sherlock’s return. Regardless, this fic was The Saddest™ on my list for so long and still remains such a close second, if I have to rank them. Either way, it’s always going to be the one that sticks with me the most.
- Oxidation by abbykate
As oil paintings dry, the process is not evaporation as there is no water in the paint to disappear; instead, the oils in the paint are oxidised causing them to harden over years in a process that never really stops.
No exaggeration, this fic is actually a little hard to talk about for me. It’s Sherlock as a tortured painter tasked with painting John, a fallen hero, using only verbal descriptions from other people. It’s honestly soul-shattering. I read it all in one day, and I was broken afterward. I sent it to one of my friends because, you know, misery loves company—but she wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole after I told her that in the fourth chapter, Sherlock says, “You’re my soulmate, I know you are, please love me back.”
All this to say, “Alone on the Water” might have hurt me coming into the Sherlock fandom when I was starry-eyed and wonderstruck, but as a jaded, cynical Johnlock fanfic vet who has been to war and back (as so many in the fandom can relate), I’ve come to find that AOTW doesn’t even touch the angst some Sherlock fanfic writers can create.